Seattle Mayor Ed Murray has been taking bold steps to help his constituents throughout his political career, but coming to Israel and the Palestinian Authority this week has been an unconventional move.
Murray, who is one of the top gay public officials in America, came to Tel Aviv for its “40 Years of Pride” conference that brought together a diverse group of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender leaders from around the world, representing dozens of nations and communities, with an array of religious and secular practices, people of many races, ethnicities, sexual orientations and gender identities.
The conference was organized by The Aguda – The Israeli National LGBT Task Force and A Wider Bridge, North America’s pro-Israel LGBT organization.
The visit to Israel was controversial in Seattle, which has a reputation as one of America’s most progressive cities, and in the LGBT community, which is often dominated by political doves.
Activists in fringe groups like Queers Against Israeli Apartheid Seattle and Jewish Voice for Peace said Murray should not have accepted the invitation or allowed the Israeli government to help pay for the trip.
Accusing Murray of “pinkwashing,” the fringe groups said it was wrong of Murray to speak at an event that highlights Israel’s gay-friendly culture because it could obscure what the groups consider mistreatment of Palestinians.
But rather than give into pressure to boycott the Jewish state, Murray came and met with politicians and entrepreneurs in Israel and officials and students in Ramallah.
The visit was inspiring for the Seattle mayor, who saw some of the qualities in the Israelis and Palestinians he met that have helped him succeed in public service.
Murray has been pushing for gay rights for decades, first as an activist, then as a legislator and now as mayor.
He succeeded in Washington on the state level in passing a bill guaranteeing civil rights for the LGBT community in 2006, domestic partnership in 2009 and gay marriage in 2012. He himself is married to a man, Michael Shiosaki, who accompanied him on the trip.
Passing such legislation required persuading the masses, building coalitions with Republicans and a lot of patience to keep failing and fighting until he ultimately succeeded. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, he praises the “culture of risk-taking with no fear of failure” among Israeli entrepreneurs; and the steadfastness of the chief Palestinian negotiator he met Monday, Saeb Erekat – who has been in charge of bringing peace to his people for more than 20 years and still has not delivered, yet has not given up.
Murray called Erekat an incredibly bright and skilled statesman who wants to deliver. He said he sensed the Palestinians’ problems would take time to sort out but noted there were times his community began to lose faith in him, and that he only succeeded in passing bills he started pushing as an activist in his 20s when he was 50.
On the Israeli side, Murray met with President Reuven Rivlin, former president Shimon Peres, the mayors of Jerusalem and Beersheba, and a wide variety of Israeli business leaders. He criticized the approach of the fringe groups who slammed his visit.
“I was happy to come here,” he asserts. “The protests didn’t change my mind. The methodology appropriate for South Africa in the 1970s is not right for here; isolating Jews over the last 2,000 years hasn’t been the right strategy. They should think twice before going there.”
Murray says meeting with talented and educated Palestinian students who are eager to work and hopeful for two states coexisting fill him with hope that diplomatic solutions could advance. He admits it would be immodest to offer advice, but reveals he has caught on quickly to misunderstandings both in Israel and back home.
“There is a lack of understanding [in Seattle] of the complexities of the issues here,” he contends. “There is also a lack of understanding in Israel about how frustrated the progressives in America are with the issues here. I hope I can help them understand better.”
Murray describes his time in Israel as fantastic and says he appreciated the opportunity to get to know the country, its culture and its hi-tech economy, which like Seattle’s has both large hi-tech companies and plenty of start-ups. He brought along a trade mission from Seattle that he described as a small effort he hopes to build upon.
“Seattle is the start-up city,” he avers. “We are one of the areas that are hot, and we received solid ideas in Israel for how to keep on growing.
We can learn how the public sector is able to take risks in a business-based economy.”
Murray praises Israel as a country that has a long history of embracing the LGBT community; he says America could learn from Israel how to embrace and advance LGBT people in a culturally conservative country.
“The invitation to me and my accepting it is a reflection of the strength and the diversity of the LGBT Movement and its ability to bridge disagreements over politics, culture, race, religion and the whole gamut, because we are everywhere.”
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